|Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Du Qian, the Sky Toucher, 1827|
Perhaps we should look at these tremendous Japanese prints of fighting men – heroic or tragic figures… bound as they are in myth and history – and pause and ask the question: why would a population of mild mannered greengrocers and shopkeepers idolise thugs, murderers and genocides? The stories behind many of these beautiful images are terrifying, the reality often blood curdling, but then looking at the average viewing for modern TV drama and movies, much the same can be said of the present day, of course. The print at the top of the page here is of Du Qian, the Sky Toucher (Mochakuten Tosen) from The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden. To those who have not seen them before they are baffling, outrageous figures of monstrous, superhero proportions. They live on, not only in computer games but also on the backs and arms and chests of men and women all over the world as tattoos… the 1827 series by Kuniyoshi sparked the Japanese trend for sleeves and full body tattoos that continues in style and subject matter today.
|Hokusai, Portaits from The Suikoden 1805 -1827|
The stories began in China as an account of ‘The Outlaws of the Marsh’ in the 14th century and might have been authored by a scribe called Shi Nai’an. They were based on actual characters and events: bandits in a Chinese province becoming Robin Hood characters and rising up against corrupt government. They became immensely popular, primarily as a symbol of resentment and rebellion. They migrated, as so much culture did, to Japan where they were revived and rewritten from 1805 by the popular author Kyokutie Bakin. Crucially they were published with illustrations by the great Hokusai. Not enough credit is given to Hokusai for his inventive designs which preceded the monumental full colour prints of Kuniyoshi. We have said before that Kuniyoshi owed a huge debt to others – notably Kunisada – but Hokusai imagined the overall scene so well that Kuniyoshi really followed in his footsteps.
|Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Li Kui,. 1827|
Kuniyoshi reinvents the single-sheet full-colour warrior print in his groundbreaking 1827 series and they are really breathtaking. But these bandits and outlaws are truly remote, otherworldly figures… firstly their roots are still in China, something which Kuniyoshi acknowledges in the drawing style and details of some prints, but they are also distant in time. Kuniyoshi, like Hokusai invests the characters with vast strength, with rippling muscles, other-worldly weapons to rival Thor’s hammer, and barely contained energy, like coiled steel waiting to burst. Everything in these master works is about crushing and bashing and smashing. The prints quite literally burst with energy, the figures strain at the edges of the paper.
|Kunisada, Ichikawa Kuzô III as An no Heibei and Nakamura Fukusuke I as Hotei Ichiemon, 1855|
I think we can understand the dramatic pull of these works… Avengers Assemble? What is harder to understand is the Edoist fascination with the very people who threatened their quiet existence. At first glance the print above might be earnest philosophers in discussion… minor elected representatives to an assembly… samurai landlords? In fact the men in these prints are named and known historical characters, oddly transformed from the lowest form of street hooligan to these noble, thoughtful men. The print represents the middle class obsession with toughs, or Otokodate as they were known. In the popular imagination the early Edo period was lawless and yet social class was strictly defined. Peasants were without rights in the presence of samurai and the imbalance led to horrific abuses of privilege and great tragedy. This became more acute as the actual strength of the samurai diminished in the eighteenth century and the merchant and artisan class became economically more powerful. It became popular to invent stories of retribution and justice where the hero was a rough and ready, yet brave and principled character who, when witnessing samurai cruelty, stepped in to defend the underdog. This class of popular hero became known as the Otokodate. The ideal Otokodate would have been originally from the samurai class, poor himself and yet uninterested in reward for its own sake. He would be a supreme combatant and effortlessly charming and successful (especially with women). Above all he would defend the underdog… the common man… against injustice. Obviously such a job description was hard to fill – hence the invention of characters like those pictured above.
|Hokusai, An no Heibei from Five Manly Men, 1798|
There’s no nobility in any of this… Around 1700, An no Heibei and Hotei Ichiemon the men in the Kunisada print, were members of a group called ‘The Five Men of Naniwa’.. themselves members of Shichigumi… a gang, (no different from London or New York street gangs of today) led by a fearsome hooligan called Karigane Bunhichi. They all of them came to a sticky end though. Their lives are recorded in police records of the time and these in return are written up in a splendid book; Osaka, the Merchant’s Capital of Early Modern Japan by Osamu A. Wakita. Their fates:
An no Heibei (ca. 1672 – 1702)Heibei attacked people with a sword in 1699, and in 1702, stabbed Kibei, employee of Kawachiya Gohei of the residential quarter Kyuhoji, in the side with a dagger. Subsequent police investigation resulted in Heibei’s arrest the following day. He was beheaded at the execution grounds on the 26 day of the 8th month 1702. A tragic end to someone whose alias in the gang, Heibei, God of Wealth, promised so much.Hotei Ichiemon (ca. 1673 – 1702)Expelled from his father’s home, he became homeless in 1694. He was involved in violent crimes from at least 1697, when he joined the gang that included An no Heibei. He was imprisoned in 1697, was let out in 1698 but went on to join Shichigumi. He was beheaded for violent crime on the 26th day of the 8th month, 1702.
|Kunichika, The Gang of Five Coming Home Like Wild Ducks, 1860’s|
We see An no Heibei appear before all this – in Hokusai’s lovely print, An no Heibei with a Courtesan, from an untitled series of the Five Manly Men (Gonin otoko) – and there again is his great friend Hotei Ichiemon… how did these frankly terrible men become such heroes?
They picked on weak and wealthy people.. taunting them and shoving them, hoping for a response until when sufficiently drunk or aggrieved, they would attack their victims physically and steal their swords and valuables. Their story was absorbed by Osaka playwrights, who quickly picked up the news story of these idiots following their execution. Plays for the puppet theatre we written that blended the hapless hooligans with ‘proper’ historic heroes such as the Soga brothers. The gang leader Bunshichi was commemorated in ballads and a tragic relationship with a prostitute added further romantic embellishment. Kabuki plays added further to the myth of the ‘Five Men of Naniwa’, and by the mid 1700’s the history of the original five had been supplanted by a sympathetic gloss, portraying them not as violent hedonists but as spirited iconoclasts.
|Yoshitoshi, Biographies of Modern Men: Habakari Yūkichi, 1865|
The print above by Yoshitoshi takes on a similar theme, In 1849, two gambling rings led by rival gangsters commenced a power struggle. The toughest was led by Lioka Sukegoro. The smaller led by Hanzo Sukegoro drove off the opposition, and even after police intervention, the fight continued despite fatalities and suicides. Yoshitoshi’s series glorifies the struggle and devotes an entire sheet to each man. The details of their lives would have been available in the broadsheets of the time and the populace considered them, as with the five men of Naniwa, tremendous heroes.
Class hatred, a real loathing of wealthy samurai merchants and landlords and contempt for government propelled these men’s sordid stories and so many others. The plays and prints and artefacts that were produced in support of their lives played a serious role which the original characters could never have guessed at, in fomenting the revolution that would end Edo culture for good.